Do 3 Year Olds Need to Know How to Read?

Warning: It's An Excessively Long Rant

by , posted on May 18th, 2011 in Features


Like how I just started off the post all bold like that? Question. Definitive answer. Why can I be so brazen? Because it’s a ridiculous question that doesn’t require any further examination.

And yet, here’s where I sigh heavily and say, it does, doesn’t it?

This morning, my blood pressure got all up and I felt those stress hormones start flooding into my blood stream making me all FIGHT OR FLIGHT! FIGHT OR FLIGHT! (You know, I think I would have been a good look out in ancient times as I get riled up so doggone easily) over an article posted in the New York Times titled Fast Tracking to Kindergarten? I found it via a discussion on Quite Contrary. Many thanks to Mary for posting!

In the article, which you should read, you learn that there are centers in the USA (primarily New York City) sprouting up left and right where kids as young as 2, 3, 4 and 5 go to be tutored. Here’s an excerpt from the article:


Other tutoring companies like Sylvan have also moved into the prekindergarten market. But Kumon, a Japanese import that calls itself the world’s largest math and reading enrichment program, has pushed most aggressively, admitting students as young as 2. Those young students have become an increasingly important part of its business: Kumon grew by about 12 percent last year, to 250,000 students nationwide; Junior Kumon grew by more than 30 percent. In New York, where the company is colonizing storefronts like so many Starbucks, enrollment in Junior Kumon has tripled since it began opening centers in 2007.

“Age 3 is the sweet spot,” said Joseph Nativo, chief financial officer for Kumon North America. “But if they’re out of a diaper and can sit still with a Kumon instructor for 15 minutes, we will take them.”


What upsets me so deeply about this movement is watching the shift in our understanding of what is developmentally appropriate for our kids. It’s as if we’ve thrown all science, history, logic, common sense, the baby with the bath water out the window. It is not developmentally appropriate for 3 year olds to know how to read. What they are doing is rote memorization. Their brains are not developed enough to process the information they are reading. So what then, is the point?

It’s not learning. It’s regurgitation. And as parents, we all know what happens with regurgitation— it stinks up the joint and we’re the ones left cleaning it up.

The other thing that is deeply disturbing about this movement is the polarizing shift away from connectivity and socialization. We have traded the skill of knowing how to read, with the skills of: conflict resolution, understanding interpersonal dynamics, knowing how to read a person, picking up on social cues, empathy(!).

Now don’t get me wrong. Reading to your child is fan-flippin-tastic! Creating stories together is incredible. Hearing your child read for the first time? Downright magical.

And heck, perhaps you even learned how to read at age 3 or have a 3 year old now who does. There are kids who are just naturally born with an insanely awesome ability to decode symbols (they’re super strong visual learners) and they’re amazing.

But kids who naturally learn to read at 3—and still I’d argue that it’s visual decoding not the higher level skill of comprehending unless they’re geniuses, which, of course some absolutely are—fall into an exceptionally narrow, almost non-existent margin.

So to “force” kids to study at age 2, 3, 4 or 5 just to try to squeeze them into that narrow, almost non-existent margin is, well, I’m going to pull my punch and say, it’s just not developmentally appropriate.

Listen, these parents’ hearts are in the right places. They honestly just want what’s best for their kids. And with the current state of fear that runs our educational system, (teachers, you better get those test scores up or else you’ll be fired) it’s no wonder that we’re all hyped up and anxious about “winning the future.” What upsets me and got my blood pumping today is the idea, the assertion, that this is what’s best for kids.

Perhaps if we worked within our communities and existing school systems, we wouldn’t see this insidious creeping-in of corporate culture telling parents their children need homework at 2, 3, 4 and 5 years of age. I fear this serves as a diversion from the real work that we can do together as a country.

The cynic in me says this is big business. And let’s be honest, big business doesn’t always have the best intentions when it comes to our kids. If they did, they wouldn’t sell our kids toys with lead in them, try to convince our 5 year olds they need a padded bikini top, or ratchet up the hysteria by even offering tutoring programs to freshly potty trained toddlers.

Competition only works when it’s smart. This isn’t smart. It’s simply stoking parents’ fears and anxiety. Because it’s true, we all just want what’s best for our kids.

At the end of the day, what it comes down to is this: these programs don’t encourage the very REAL work that is required for kids to develop into innovative and creative thinkers. That work is done through questioning, playing, testing out ideas and generating new ones, forming associations and linking broader concepts together, honoring and respecting developmental milestones.

Our aim shouldn’t be to teach a generation how to regurgitate facts or figures. Our aim should be to teach a generation how to create a brighter future.

StumbleUponFacebookTwitterShare it!


38 Responses to “Do 3 Year Olds Need to Know How to Read?”

  1. marymac Says:

    May 18th, 2011 at 4:50 pm

    Thanks for posting a by-far more eloquent opinion piece! Vive PLAY! ;)

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Thanks so much Mary!

  2. Kirsten Says:

    May 18th, 2011 at 4:53 pm

    aaaaaahhhhhhHH! Jen! I was working on an *exact* companion piece to this last night, but didn’t post b/c I was worried I was being ranty and unpopular in my opinions. Now we can be ranty & unpopular together. Ha.

    I am SO with you on this. I’ve just been on the Twitter this very afternoon talking to moms trying to hurry their kiddos into Kindergarten. WHAT IS THE RUSH PEOPLE?

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Oooh! Write it! Write it!

    You know, I’m sitting here all stressed out about how my words will be read, and then I say, it just has to be said.

    Parents shouldn’t feel like they have to subscribe to this idea. If just ONE of them is on the fence, I want them to know that there are people like you and me out there who are raising kids right along with them. And our kids have learned how to read without “hothousing” them.

    Basically, I just want them to know, they don’t have to drink the kool aid if they don’t want.

  3. Heather Says:

    May 18th, 2011 at 6:24 pm

    Wait a second — Your baby CAN’T read? {{insert mass hysteria}} Then he’ll NEVER get into college.

    Great piece, Jen! You know I 100% agree.

  4. christy j Says:

    May 18th, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    I just wanted to say ‘my bit’ here..
    Both my girls ‘picked up’ reading at around 3 1/2..all we did was read a lot to them, and not like obsessively lol.
    When they went to jr kindergarten(this is canada, both girls were freshly 4) their teachers were SHOCKED, they’d never seen anything like it.
    So no way, it’s not necessary, in fact they missed out on learning to read with their peers, and on some of the learn to read incentives that their classes did.. my girls were ‘freaks’.

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Thanks so much for weighing in Christy! I sincerely appreciate hearing from a parent whose children were early readers.

    I hadn’t even considered the impact it has on kids regarding learning with peers. Did they have a difficult time or was it okay? It’s another great discussion to have: what to do for those kids who do learn very quickly.

  5. Lori-Anne Says:

    May 18th, 2011 at 8:03 pm

    Preach it sister! I, too, feel so strongly about this. It’s becoming a more and more popular misconception that if your kids (toddlers) aren’t actively learning in an organized way, then they’re not learning at all. In fact, as you so eloquently pointed out, they’re learning some of the most important things of their lives – things that will make the foundation of who they are. They’re processing stuff and experimenting and trying out what it’s like to be a person. Playing is actually very important work, and there’s no replacement. Oh boy, now I’m starting to rant – I think I’d better go formulate a column or something. Off to read the New York Times piece!

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    You’ll have to let me know what you think after you read the article. I started writing this before I read the whole thing. Then I came back to it and wrote more which lead to the whole “warning, it’s excessively long.”

  6. Nikki Says:

    May 18th, 2011 at 9:41 pm

    Thank god fir sensible people like you, there is similar craziness in UK too and as an ex teacher who saw the results of Kumon-highly neurotic children who were scared to hav a go in they got it wrong- I can only hope that it’s not just the like minded who read your words.

  7. Nikki Says:

    May 18th, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    Fir arghhh sorry for

  8. Nikki Says:

    May 18th, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    Oh dear oh dear so many typos sorry it’s late here (well that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it)

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Ha! Yes, it is late and you are entitled to typos!

    Thanks and you brought up such a great point: the fear of being wrong. Kids (and all of us really) shouldn’t be afraid to take calculated risks. The outcomes from taking a calculated risk teach us far more than a worksheet ever will.

    Aliza Reply:

    Fantastic piece, JCoop!

    My mom taught high school math for many, many years. The class always began with kids who felt like it going up to the board to put the previous night’s homework problems up and solving them. If they got it wrong, they got DOUBLE board credit. She was trying to teach them that the learning is in the process, and to overcome the fear of getting it wrong. We learn as much, if not more, from our mistakes than acing it the first time through.

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    AHHHH! Aliza, such a brilliant, brilliant point. And may I say, your mom is pretty dang amazing!

  9. Ciaran/Momfluential Says:

    May 19th, 2011 at 12:33 am

    I have one kid that learned to read at 3. Spontaneously. Through nothing but NEGLECT on my part. Too many episodes of WorldWorld and time on Then again I have another who learned at 9 despite every intervention under the sun. I’ve come to believe that kids learn to read when they are ready. And you can beat yourself senseless trying to speed that up or slow it down or predict or declare Aha! 6 is the age!

    What concerns me is the number of parents who think that there is a magic formula to all of this. One right way to do it.

    Yesterday as I pulled past an alley with signage to keep out vehicles, my 3 yr old announced “Hey Mommy – that sign says NO CARS, NO TRUCKS”. I asked him if he read it. He laughed at me and told me “of course not. I’m three! I can’t read!”

    I shrugged and said that’s ok. Thanks for telling me about the sign. And kept driving.

    He’ll “read” when he’s ready.

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Ciaran, I think you hit the nail on the head, you can’t force it and yes some kids at 3 will know how to read, naturally. They’re just hard wired for it.

    It’s the idea of hothousing that makes me nuts.

  10. Steph at Modern Parents Messy Kids Says:

    May 19th, 2011 at 5:25 am

    GRRRRRRRR!!!!!!!! I really, really DESPISE this sort of thinking. Just like you – my blood boils when I hear those stupid “teach your baby to read” commercials on the radio.

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Those commercials are the worst, aren’t they?!

  11. puteri Says:

    May 19th, 2011 at 7:49 am

    thank you for the posting. it’s interesting to know that the issues are very similar here in malaysia!

  12. christy j Says:

    May 19th, 2011 at 2:09 pm

    me again!
    no, my girls didn’t have any issues with their peers, at 4 they’re generally still not to the making-fun-of stage..i think it was more of a “WOAH! YOU can READ?!”.
    I’d be curious to see if it happened again(reading at 3)in another child, but alas, no more children! lol

  13. Suzanne Ryan Says:

    May 19th, 2011 at 2:30 pm

    You had me at no. Great job, coming from a first grade teacher and mom.

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Thanks Suzanne. And thanks for teaching our kids!

  14. Cheryl @ Mommypants Says:

    May 19th, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    Well put, jcoop!

    Altho i disagree with one thing: I’m not sure all these people are doing it because it’s best for their kids. They’re doing it b/c they don’t want to be the parent whose children are “behind.” Or, in other words, normal.

    My friend’s son started reading at 2 1/2. It’s a phenomenon called “spontaneous reading.” The mom did nothing, he just did it. Craziness!

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Cheryl, re: doing it because it’s best for their kids, touché my friend.

    Yes, it’s okay to be normal! One can lead an exceptional life as a normal person or *gasp* average. And one can lead an exceptional life if they are not average. Same is true for those kids who take a little longer to learn/process. To think that your life’s course is set at age 2 or 3 is silliness.

  15. Christen Says:

    May 19th, 2011 at 4:08 pm

    I love this article. At the end of preschool last year another mom told me that her son was tutoring all summer so that he would be reading by fall. My kids attend/attended (little L is still there) a play-based preschool & beyond the preschool 1 week summer camp (where they had an art show & put on a play) that L attended, we had no academic plans.
    I admit that I panicked. Luckily, I have a very supportive husband that was able to talk me down to sanity. And guess what? Luke isn’t the strongest reader in his class, but he is doing very well. Quite “normal”, in fact. ;)

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Christen, thank you for adding your voice to this conversation. I think it’s that feeling of anxiety many of us feel that prompted me to be so passionate about this. The anxiety just seems so unnecessary. You know?

    And it’s that cultural shift I wanted to highlight. It’s like how Real World was great as was Survivor the first time around. Then BOOM! 10 years later, everyone jumps on the band wagon and we’re left with nothing to watch but reality shows (and most them are dreadfully terrible). Do we really need 14 different versions of the Real Housewives?

  16. Virginia Says:

    May 19th, 2011 at 9:30 pm

    Children learn from playing
    you should see this video he is fantastic!!!!!!!!!

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Thanks Virginia for the video!

  17. Cath Says:

    May 22nd, 2011 at 7:03 am

    So hoping this is not coming to Australia in a big way. But I fear it will. We have recently introduced standardised testing into our school systems, with schools having their scores published online, so that parents can make “informed choices”.

    I don’t really care about these scores. I want to know if the schools have a garden program, an art, music and drama centre or teach a second language. Kids will learn to read because they are taught to read. They will learn maths because they are taught maths, but my question is will they learn to think for themselves, find creative solutions, negotiate relationships, challenge the status quo, unless they learn to do these things through play, especially in the early years, when their young brains are being wired?

    I fear that by doing this “tutoring”, these children will develop serious developmental problems in the very structure of their brains. I’m no expert but I have read, “The Brain that Changes Itself” by Norman Doidge and similar books that explain the process. As Ken Robinson advocates (see above), the future needs creative thinkers, because we don’t know what’s next – but we need to be able to deal with it.

    Thanks for your rant, and for permission to have a little one of my own! Keep up the good work.

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Thank you Cath for chiming in! I love what you wrote: “They will learn maths because they are taught maths, but my question is will they learn to think for themselves, find creative solutions, negotiate relationships, challenge the status quo, unless they learn to do these things through play, especially in the early years, when their young brains are being wired? ”

    To that, I raise my fist in the air and say, YES I am with you!

  18. Terri Says:

    May 26th, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    I loved reading this & I absolutely agree!! I have a 4 and a 2-yr old and this really hits home for me. My 4-yr-old recently told me that she wants to learn to read, so we’re working on it… slowly.

    The scary part about all of this is that our local school system seems to be buying into it. They plan on switching up the elementary system so that instead of neighborhood schools, your child would go to the school that fits their learning style. While I can see it working for later elementary (maybe)… I really resent the fact that I need to determine whether my kindegartner is a “scientist” or a “leader”. Ugh. We’re seriously considering moving because of this (or homeschooling).

  19. It’s a Hodge Podge of Stuff Really Says:

    July 18th, 2011 at 8:31 pm

    [...] of the thoughts bouncing around in my head is the idea that our society expects too much out of young children and then not enough out of older kids. In this case, these 13 to 18 year olds illustrate that youth [...]

  20. AngieF Says:

    July 9th, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    So…I agree with your article. I do have a three year old who reads. And even though I didn’t take her to a tutoring place, I have done other things to “encourage” reading early. I don’t think she learned simply out of the blue. She goes to Montessori preschool…if you are familiar with all their left to right activities. I even played the “your baby can read” videos when she was little. She liked them. I thought they seemed boring…but she liked them and I figured looking at print and knowing it is connected to a meaning doesn’t hurt. I sang alphabet songs, sound songs, etc. I read to her a lot and taught her the sounds of letters, then the sounds of simple consonant vowel constant words. She got it easily. I don’t push it. If she doesn’t want to, we don’t do it because I really want her to love it. She actually does comprehend what she reads. I would not be discouraged or upset though if she didn’t learn yet. The window for learning to read is very wide…totally appropriate up to even early third grade (though hardly anyone will accept that late age as ok.) I don’t, however, think there is anything wrong with providing all the opportunities to learn early. I do think pushing it before they are ready is wrong. I also think there is an order to what you learn for long term success. I also think stressing about it at all is silly. They are babies. Play videos, sing songs, read together, hold up foam letters in the tub and make sounds. Sound out simple words, like “hot” on the bottom of the bathtub duck for them. Have fun. Enjoy the discovery. Enjoy the process. It may be a long process, it may be shorter. Enjoy it. Watch Word World. Scrub tables left to right. Enjoy it. Make it part of the play they do, part of their interaction with you and others. There is only harm when you bring a harmful attitude or harmful expectations along with all of the experiences. Don’t NOT do those extra things because “playtime” is so important. Don’t sacrifice playtime because “reading” is so important. I just don’t see a need to get hyped either way.

    Charlotte Reply:

    I agree with you. My daughter turned 3 in February. She wants me to read to her all the time and she loves doing all kinds of puzzles. So naturally she has learned all of the upper and lower case letters not from force but because the little foam puzzles only costed me a buck each at the dollar store. She also does puzzles for older children with all sorts of themes. I think if I only did academics that would be forcing. I do whatever themes she chooses plus letters, numbers, colors and shapes. She has no concept of being “schooled” or that she is being drilled because she isn’t. I also teach her opposites thru naturally occurring situations and in play. So when we play with her doll house or when she is playing with beans in a tub or bucket, it is easy to talk about full and empty. Likewise I teach her Spanish by playing house with her, having her make requests when she is willing, reading bilingual books, watching Spanish videos and listening to Spanish music. Plus my husband is a native speaker.

    I do not force her to do anything. She chooses what we do and when we do it, except I do restrict media to a minimum. She also plays outside and learns a lot naturally from a simple conversation with me on a walk.

    I think too often parents take extremes one way or the other. What works for one child may not work for another and while my daughter can easily excel in reading right now since she knows letters and sounds, she does not yet make pictures accurately. They still look like scribbles. I don’t force her to learn. She has improved since we started going to an open ended art class but I do not worry about it because she will figure it out. The way that I see it, I progress in anything she can smoothly take on without frustration and let the rest wait until I know she is ready. I think with all children you wait to teach them something when they are developmentally able to understand. My daughter is 3 and I know she is able to understand some basics to reading. I am in no rush though to teach her. We just do it when it naturally seems appropriate.

  21. Brenda Says:

    May 14th, 2015 at 6:32 pm

    I googled ” what percentage of three and a half year olds learn to read?” I found this blog. My son now 5.5 years learned to read when he was three. His sister now 3.5 years old is doing it too. Now before you rip my head off let me just say for the record I didn’t do it! They did it all by themselves. I blame technology. Here is how it went with children 3&4, they have older siblings, as a result they are tech savy, so as a parent I fill a tool bar full of age apropriate book marks like seseme street, pbs,and star fall. All free all harmless. And guess what? They figure it out all by themselves. Then when they ask for books I read to them. Then one day you make a mistake reading out loud and you get corrected. Or a little girl asks your son “what does that sign say?” and he reads at four years old. “This check stand closed” Now, most parents like me try to keep this a secret, we don’t want be labled that pushy mom who made her three year old read. Honestly its not true. I agree reading is inappropriate for three year olds. Infact because my five and a half year old started reading so early he is developing a stigmatism. Little eyes are not build for reading. But understand that we are likely to see more self taught readers in the futer, because that starfall web sight is pretty good. It would be hard not to figure it out. And if you are a child playing with the sight, you will learn best through play.

  22. Sara Says:

    December 29th, 2015 at 3:29 pm

    2 of my kids are 3 and read; my kids also count, paint, draw, sing, dance and make “funny faces”.

    They problem solve with other humans and they imagine having pets only they can see. They find dirt covered in water more interesting than plan ol’ dirt and they understand that some tasks are required even if they’d rather not partake and some are optional.
    They can choose their own wardrobe and then fully dress themselves. Properly.

    We ALL learn plenty of things by rote memorization. Even our physicals tasks find peak with muscle memory, aka: repetition. Repetition is often the key to many areas of development.
    It seems a rather odd thing to withhold the begin of education until our child can comprehend all the concepts you will teach. Do we deny the breast because our child cannot comprehend starvation? Or even the act of receiving nourishment? That’s extreme sure but still rather similar.

    Do not confuse “rote memorization” as being simply the memorization of whole words and/or “sight words”. (I noticed the “Baby can read” comments. I, personally, do not like or use that program.)

    My children sound out the letters and READ the words.
    If you think a 3 year old has trouble comprehending:
    The cat in a big red hat sat on a mat with a fat pink rat! Well, that actually makes more sense to a three year old than to me. They find it hilarious!

    Point? I wont judge you and your NORMAL non-reading kids if you stop judging me and mine.

    You took your feelings, the idea of being judged an inadequate, “bad” mother by people who should not even matter to you, and you did to other mothers EXACTLY what reading that article did to you except your comments were far more judgmental, personal and cruel.

    For the record, I INTENTIONALLY provided a road to reading for my children; it was NOT by “accident” that they read and I am NOT ashamed to say it.

    I am very proud of my children, they are NOT “freaks” (as one mother called hers); I do not think they are “better” (or worse) than yours or anyone else’s but I do think they are awesome and their reading skills are pretty stinkin’ cool.

    Jennifer Cooper Reply:

    Bummer that you found this post through a Google search and that you read it as disparaging you or your kids personally. I wrote this about 4 years ago when the blog was small and read by like-minded parents. Although since then there has been a decrease in the number of teach your baby to read commercials/companies. Probably because many parents found it unnecessary. Anyway, hope you’ll stick around for other projects. Although to be honest, I don’t really blog much anymore. Before I leave you I wanted to say I’m sure your children are lovely and bright and full of imagination! My apologies for causing your stress to rise. It’s probably how I felt back then watching all those commercials and seeing the testing trend ramp up. I’m happy we’re in a different place now.

« previous  |  next »